Stories & Myths: PSYO Fall Concert
Energized by many recent artistic achievements, Pacific Symphony Youth Orchestra (PSYO) inaugurates its 2017-18 season with a stirring and innovative program that includes Berlioz’ thrilling Roman Carnival Overture, Journey by the young Los Angeles-based composer Austin Wintory and concludes with one of the most beloved of 20th century classics, the Firebird Suite of Igor Stravinsky.
Admission is free, but tickets are required. Seating is general admission.
To learn more about PSYO Music Director Roger Kalia, please click here.
Roger Kalia, Conductor
Pacific Symphony Youth Orchestra
BERLIOZ: Roman Carnival Overture
WINTORY: Journey Suite
STRAVINSKY: Firebird (1919)
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ROGER KALIA • CONDUCTOR
CHELSEA CHAVES • VOCALIST
Hector Berlioz (1803–1869)
Roman Carnival Overture
Austin Wintory (b. 1984)
Suite from Journey
I Was Born for This
Chelsea Chaves, vocalist
Igor Stravinsky (1882–1971)
Firebird Suite (1919)
L’oiseau de feu et sa danse
Variation de l’oiseau de feu
Ronde des princesses
Danse infernale du roi Kastchei
This evening’s performance is generously sponsored by Judith Posnikoff.
Today recognized as the leading early 19th-century French composer, Hector Berlioz (1803-1869) was the most important composer of his time in a country whose principal forms of art were literary and visual. In his own day, however, his music was considered eccentric and “incorrect,” although it was better appreciated in Germany, Austria, and Russia than his native France.
In fact, to Paris audiences Berlioz was known more as a critic than a composer. Due to his music’s poor reception he was forced for financial reasons into the position of music critic; although he was an extremely gifted writer, he hated doing it. Unable to secure a teaching position, Berlioz was appointed assistant librarian to the Paris Conservatoire.
More than anything, Berlioz’s music is about artistic expression; its composer was intensely emotional and maintained a certain childlike idealism. Throughout his career he held firm to the ideal that art should maintain its purity at all costs, upholding its highest standards for those who can fully appreciate it and for its own sake rather than adapting itself to fit marketplace considerations.
In the words of Berlioz scholar Hugh Macdonald: “Few composers have woven their own personality so tightly into their music, so that all his works reflect something in himself expressed through poetry, literature, religion or drama. Expression is the key.
Music was not for him an autonomous art obeying internal rules and exploiting internal relations. It was an integral part of emotional and spiritual life, reflecting the teeming motion of the mind, the explosive diversity of life.” Ultimately, Berlioz was unable to live with “the failure of the world to live up to his ideals, and not just its failure, its clear determination to dissociate itself from them.”
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In 1830, shortly after writing Symphonie Fantastique, Berlioz won the Prix de Rome, the most prestigious musical prize in France. It was Berlioz’s fourth attempt (after failing to achieve the prize three times he decided to simplify his musical style, submitting music in a more conventional, formally acceptable style).
The prize, which Bizet would win a few years later, allowed the recipient to study in Rome for three years while being supported by a generous government stipend. Unlike many other recipients, who were overjoyed at the chance to study and travel, Berlioz saw the prize as merely a statement in support of his musical ambitions and in practical terms as a secure source of income.
In fact, fearing that so much time away from Paris would interfere with his budding musical career there, he unsuccessfully tried to petition the prize committee to waive him from the requirement of living in Rome. Winning the prize did have the fortunate side effect of finally convincing his parents to accept the idea of a musical career for their son.
Berlioz ended up spending fifteen months in Italy; his time there was to a large degree a disappointment. He was unimpressed with Italian art, literature (except for Virgil), and particularly music, and his compositions written there were unexceptional. In particular, his travel there allowed him at 27 years old to first experience in real life some of the things that he had only read about.
Although he hated Rome, writing that it “is the most stupid and prosaic city I know: it is no place for anyone with head or heart,” he travelled much and fell in love with Florence.
Although he was not directly inspired by Italian music, Berlioz found indirect inspiration in the sounds, sights, people, and landscapes of Italy, particularly outside of Rome. After returning to Paris, Berlioz continued his musical activities, although he was unable to earn much income from them and was forced to rely on musical journalism to earn a living.
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Poster advertising the first performance of the opera Benvenuto Cellini by Hector Berlioz.
In early 19th-century Paris, opera was the most important musical genre, both in terms of artistic prestige and financial compensation. Berlioz composed five completed operas, as well as many incomplete fragments. His first full opera, Benvenuto Cellini, was originally intended for the Opéra Comique and then upgraded for the Paris Opéra. Like many of his compositions, it is a mixture of various genres, combining comedy and serious drama. The opera premiered at the Paris Opéra on September 10, 1838.
It was very poorly received, a failure that precluded him from receiving any more opera commissions in Paris. He revised it more than a decade later in 1852, putting on the second version in Weimar with the help of his friend Franz Liszt; the opera is today almost never performed. The libretto is by Léon de Wailly and Henri Auguste Barbier.
The opera is a highly fictionalized adaptation of the autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini (1500-1571), a real-life Italian sculptor, musician and artist based in Rome. At the beginning of the opera, Pope clement VII has chosen Cellini—instead of the official papal sculptor, Fiermosca—to make a sculpture of Perseus. (At the time, official censorship prohibited the depiction of popes on stage, so Clement was replaced with a cardinal before the opera’s premiere.)
While preparing to make the sculpture, Cellini plans to meet Teresa at the carnival and elope with her; he is overheard by Fiermosca, who also is in love with Teresa. At the carnival, Fiermosca arrives dressed identically to Cellini, hoping to intercept Teresa first. In the end, Cellini completes the sculpture of Perseus and marries Teresa.
The second act was considered weak and confusing, and was partly responsible for the opera’s poor reception. Although the music was unappreciated by wider audiences, Berlioz himself was highly pleased with it, writing that it “contains a variety of ideas, an energy and exuberance and a brilliance of colour such as I may perhaps never find again.”
Six years after the opera’s premiere, Berlioz arranged parts of it into a separate piece, the Roman Carnival Overture. Like many of his later overtures, it adheres to the fast-slow-fast pattern. The English horn solo comes from the aria “O Teresa, vous que j’aime plus que ma vie” (“Oh Teresa, you who I love more than my life”), in which Cellini plans to elope with Teresa at the carnival while secretly overheard by Fieramosca.
The fast theme comes from the opera’s carnival scene. One of his most famous pieces, it preserves the opera’s exuberance and vivid orchestration. Roman Carnival Overture premiered in Salle Herz in Paris on February 3, 1844; the original overture to the opera is also performed as a standalone piece.
A native of Denver, Austin Wintory (1984-) began composing at age 10. After composing music for high school orchestras, he studied at NYU and USC, graduating with a master’s degree in 2007. He has composed music for concerts, almost 50 movies and several video games.
Released in 2012, Journey is one of the best-selling games for Play Station. In fact, it was the first video game ever nominated for a Grammy award for its musical score. It is described on its website as follows:
A Mysterious World
Alone and surrounded by miles of burning, sprawling desert, you soon discover the looming mountaintop is your goal. The passage will not be easy but this experience of a lifetime will help you discover who you are, what this place is, as you arrive at your purpose... Soar above ruins and glide across sands as you explore the secrets of a forgotten civilization. Featuring stunning visuals, haunting music, and unique online gameplay, Journey delivers an experience like no other.
Journey Suite is an arrangement for concert performance of this game’s award-winning music.
It was perhaps inevitable that Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) would become a musician. Descended from Russian and Polish nobility, Stravinsky’s father was one of the leading opera singers in St. Petersburg. The young Stravinsky grew up in an artistic milieu, surrounded by the greats of Russian opera: renowned singers, teachers, and many of the leading composers of the late 19th century were fixtures in the Stravinsky home. Stravinsky often attended the opera to watch his father perform.
Like Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky studied piano and developed a love of literature. Also like the great 19th-century composer, Stravinsky studied law in St. Petersburg but maintained his passion for music. While a law student, he studied piano with a former student of Anton Rubinstein (Tchaikovsky’s teacher) as well as composition with two of Rimsky-Korsakov’s former students. He also befriended Rimsky- Korsakov’s son, an amateur violinist who was Stravinsky’s classmate in law school.
When Stravinsky finally met Rimsky-Korsakov, he was encouraged to study more theory but warned that he did not have enough musical training to attend the conservatory. However, the elder composer agreed to teach him privately on occasion. Stravinsky soon became a frequent guest at Rimsky-Korsakov’s house, both for lessons and soirées.
Immersed in St. Petersburg culture, he attended operas nearly constantly, although his teacher and musical circle detested ballet (ironic for a composer who would ultimately get his first big break from a ballet and who even today would be primarily known for his ballets). He also attended Evenings of Contemporary Music, a St. Petersburg society of avant-garde and cosmopolitan music from France, Germany, and Russia.
The group was hated by Rimsky- Korsakov because of its amateurism and experimentation (many of the same values that Rimsky-Korsakov’s own circle had staunchly advocated in the 1860s). Indeed, Stravinsky never contributed to the group, although it would have certainly provided him with ample musical opportunities.
Ultimately, St. Petersburg University was closed in 1905 following massive protests as a result of the Russo-Japanese War. As a result, Stravinsky was unable to graduate with his law degree. In fact, it is unclear how he might have fared even had the university not been closed; clearly he was far more interested in music than law. In any event, he decided to devote himself to music. In the following years, Stravinsky saw his reputation as a composer begin to grow in St. Petersburg.
Stravinsky composed his ballet Firebird in 1910 for les Ballets Russes, a Russian ballet company founded in the previous year by Sergei Diaghilev and dedicated to introducing Russian ballet to France.
Diaghilev had become familiar with Stravinsky’s music and invited him to orchestrate music by Chopin for a ballet in 1909; why Diaghilev chose Stravinsky over other composers, including his resident composer Nikolai Tcherepnin, is not known.
Diaghilev’s earlier productions, particularly the Chopin adaptation, were criticized in Paris as not being sufficiently Russian, so for his next production he chose to set a version of the Firebird, the most stereotypically Russian story he could come up with. Stravinsky composed the music while living in an apartment on Anglisky Prospekt in downtown St. Petersburg, just a few blocks from the Mariinsky Theatre, from December 1909 through May 1910. The ballet premiered at the Paris Opera on June 25, 1910.
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Русский: Жар-птица, English: Firebird. Oil on canvas by Ivan Bilibin, (1876-1942)
The ballet’s namesake, the firebird, is a magical bird of Russian mythology which glows brilliantly red, orange and yellow. In many versions of the legend, the hero (usually Prince Ivan, the Russian equivalent of Prince Charming) finds one of its still-glowing feathers and sets off on a quest to find the live bird, which is considered to bring both good luck and doom.
The chief villain is the evil sorcerer Koschei, who sometimes may appear in human form but is in reality an immortal demon. His soul is hidden in an egg, which—rather like the famous Russian matryosha dolls—is inside a duck inside a hare inside a chest buried under an oak tree on an island called Buyan (a mythical island which can disappear into thin air and magically reappear again).
Stravinsky’s version uses many of these elements. At the climax of the ballet, Prince Ivan enters the lair of Koschei. He sees a great variety of magical objects, which we can hear represented in the music. Catching a glimpse of the Firebird, he chases it; when he captures it, it agrees to help him in exchange for its freedom.
The prince then sees thirteen princesses and falls in love with one of them. He confronts Koschei, asking his permission to marry her. Of course Koschei, being a villain, says no, and the two begin to fight. The Firebird, in keeping with its promise, entrances all of them, making Koschei and the princesses perform a frenzied dance and then fall asleep. Koschei soon wakes, but the Firebird immediately puts him into another trance.
The Firebird then tells Prince Ivan the secret of Koschei’s magic and immortality: the egg inside the duck inside the hare inside the chest buried under the oak tree. Prince Ivan destroys the egg, Koschei is defeated, all of the princesses wake, the Firebird bids them farewell, and everyone lives happily ever after.
In rehearsals, Stravinsky had to explain the music to the dancers, who often missed their cues. The piece uses whole tones, tritones, and octatonicism to represent supernatural elements and diatonic harmonies to represent human characters—a device he learned from Rimsky-Korsakov.
In fact, unlike much of Stravinsky’s compositions the music for Firebird is not particularly new or innovative. Rather, it is heavily indebted to Rimsky-Korsakov, Skriabin, Glazunov and Tchaikovsky. In future compositions, however, Stravinsky would put himself at the forefront of musical modernism, particularly with The Rite of Spring.
The Firebird thrust Stravinsky from a relatively obscure young composer in St. Petersburg into international fame (Tchaikovsky was the first major composer to write music for a ballet; Stravinsky would become the first to become a major composer specifically through a ballet). As a result of its resounding success, he became an instant celebrity, befriending musical and artistic figures like Debussy, Ravel and Marcel Proust.
Fleeing the Russian Revolution, he settled on the shores of Lake Geneva in Switzerland. As a result of the steep decline in artistic activities following World War 1 he found himself in need of financial support, so he frequently arranged alternate versions of earlier works. The 1919 concert suite version of Firebird dates from this period and was likely completed due to financial pressures.
After living in France during the 1920s and 1930s, Stravinsky spent 30 years living right here in Los Angeles. In his later years he was influenced by virtually all of the most important musical developments of the early and mid-20th century. More than that, he adapted them and made them his own. In turn, he proved hugely influential to the vast majority of composers, becoming one of the two pillars of modern classical music.
Joshua Grayson, Ph.D., is an historical musicologist and graduate of the USC Thornton School of Music.
To learn more about PSYO Music Director Roger Kalia, please click here.